Director Paolo Sorrentino's thrilling, confounding biopic Il Divo gives the audience a memorable first look at Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo). The aging, scandal-plagued Italian prime minister rises in a poorly lit room to reveal a face porcupined with acupuncture needles. It’s probably no coincidence that Sorrentino’s shot draws a visual parallel between Andreotti and the demonic Pinhead character from the Hellraiser movies. The title Il Divo comes from Andreotti’s highly ironic nickname, “The Divine,” but the film paints him more like the prince of darkness of Italy’s post WWII government.
Few recent movies can fill an audience with so much excitement and so much confusion as Il Divo. The film chronicles Andreotti’s late career in public life, from his seventh election as premier in 1992 to the Big Mafia Trial of his alleged ties to organized crime. Il Divo is the polar opposite of a soft-spoken study of the corridors of power like The Queen. Sorrentino attacks the material with the most flamboyant camerawork and conspicuous soundtrack choices imaginable. Clearly influenced by Martin Scorsese, Sorrentino introduces Andreotti’s advisers and adversaries with red subtitles, iconic angles and slow-motion, and employs songs ranging from “Danse Macabre” to Trio’s “Da Da Da.”
If you’re a longtime follower of European politics, you might have an easier time with Il Divo’s dizzying summation of Italy’s power structure and the knotty criminal conspiracies linking Andreotti to murders, suicides and a scandal nicknamed Bribesville. Sorrentino, it seems, avoids oversimplifying the details of complex trials, which fly at the viewer in a whirlwind of witness allegations and Andreotti’s denials. I had to give up the pretense of following the story and focused on Il Divo's vision of political corruption, zesty character roles, and Servillo’s compelling performance as Andreotti.
Capturing a once powerful political figure at a time of increasing isolation and decline, Servillo’s work suggests Bruno Ganz’s turn as Adolf Hitler in Downfall. Where Ganz conveyed the Führer reduced to a husk of his former glory, Servillo embodies Andreotti as the banality of evil, a bloodless politico who scarcely found any glory to savor. Another of his nicknames was “The Hunchback,” and Servillo carries himself with such drawn-up, rigid body language that he makes Richard Nixon look like Jim Carrey.
Sorrentino’s hyperbolic, rock ’n' roll stylishness serves as a sly counterpoint to Servillo’s bland demeanor. Although, during an imaginary confession to his wife (Anna Bonaiuto), he passionately defends doing evil deeds in the name of Italy’s greater good. One of the most surprising things about Il Divo is the realization that Andreotti is still alive, as a 90-year-old senator for life. The film resembles the kind of posthumous exposé that drags all the skeletons out of the closet.